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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

The Vaporware A E S T H E T I C in Modern Pop

16 February 2017
Barnaby Goodman explores the influence of vaporwave in pop music

Since the genre’s inception, vaporwave has been the subject of both ironic memes and online over-intellectualisation. Its slow-mo regurgitation of 80’s and 90’s musical cliché reflects the 21st century’s thirst for nostalgia. It has even been argued that its use of pop culture and commercial artefacts is intended as a critique of consumer capitalism. At the beginning of this decade, the discussion of the finer points of vaporwave’s infamous a e s t h e t i c would have only been relevant in the deep recesses of tumblr, but now its values have seeped their way into the music of chart toppers.

Internet intellectual The Nerdwriter points to the use of the Yamaha DX 7 on Drake’s “Feel No Ways”. The synth’s presets are instantly recognisable as the cheesy bread and butter of 80’s and 90’s pop, being used on such tunes as Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. Drake and producer Jordan Ullman pair this cheesy tang with a drum break from Malcolm McLaren’s Proto-Hip Hop album Do you like Scratchin’? – clearing the audience’s pallet of pop mawkishness. Here we see Drake doing something that is at the core of the vaporwave manifesto: appropriating played out musical tropes and recontextualising them in a way that gives them the kudos of cool.

Mac DeMarco’s rig includes the DX 7, DX 100 and other vintage synths. He repurposes their clichéd sounds in an indie rock context, as vaporwave does in an electronic context. But this is not the only similarity that can be drawn between DeMarco’s music and vaporwave. The main hook from “Chamber of Reflection” is lifted from Japanese muzak-maker Shigeo Sekito’s tune “The Word II”, and the influence of Japanese culture is central to the vaporwave aesthetic. Throughout the history of the genre producers have sampled Japanese disco and pop tracks, and used the iconography of cyberpunk and anime for their album art. Kanji characters adorned the album cover of Macintosh Plus’ album Floral Shoppe, one of the earliest examples of the genre. The influence of Japanese culture in DeMarco’s music is less overt but his sound, since the introduction of keyboards, owes a lot to music of Sekito, Susumu Hirasawa and other Japanese synth pioneers of the 70’s and 80’s.

The chill-out vibe of Mac DeMarco’s music is achieved through the pitch control of tape. London Jazz outfit Yussef Kamaal, achieve a similar effect digitally on the track “Strings of Light”. Slowing down of samples is one of the core techniques of vaporwave and contributes to a sense of hypnagogia, the state between consciousness and sleep, according to Berklee alum and Youtuber Adam Neeley. Yussef Kamal’s album Black Focus is an exercise in this sensation. Its ambient production, spacious groves and use of vintage keyboards all contribute to a dreamlike quality. Vaporwave represented a shift in electronic music from dance-oriented to hypnagogic. Modern pop has had a similar trajectory: Mac DeMarco represents a shift in indie rock from garage band aggression to laid-back stylings; Drake’s Views fused Hip-Hop’s beat orientation with RnB’s more spacious textures; and Black Focus perhaps reflects a similar direction for jazz.

I am not suggesting that Drake, Mac DeMarco and Yussef Kamaal spent the early 2010’s religiously following vaporware, sea punk and pale grunge blogs on tumblr to learn the ways of the a e s t h e t i c. But the similar tendencies between vaporware and modern pop tells us something about music, and the world today. The reaction of music to its recent past is a two-step process: First, complete rejection, then, homage. Early Hip-Hop’s samples of 60’s and 70’s funk and soul were a loving tribute, but the homage of the 21st century is a little less honorific. Vaporwave’s use of the sounds of the 80’s and 90’s is both heavily ironic and nostalgic. Modern pop dials this down, but there is still a pang of the post-modern irony of our times. The new hypnagogia of pop reflects the ennui of our times, offering slow motion, in a time moving at breakneck speed. The current nostalgia for the end of the last century is not viewed through rose tinted glasses, but through the warped screen of a Macintosh Plus.

For more on these topics check out:
The Nerdwriter- Drake’s “Feel No Ways” Deconstructed Adam Neely- The Music Theory of Vaporwave